Paper vs. Cloth Table Napkins — Which are Greener?

Pile of Paper NapkinsA small and seemingly insignificant item, like a table napkin, can have a significant environmental impact. For instance, if 50% of the U.S. population (about 150MM people), used 1 paper napkin per meal 3 times a day, 164,250,000,000 (yes billion) napkins would be used over just a 1-year period.

What is the environmental impact of billions of napkins? Which is “greener,” paper or cloth napkins? In the time I allotted for researching this post, I found it difficult to locate “apples to apples” comparisons and came across limited data specific to napkins.

Below are some bits and pieces of information I collected along the way.

Napkin Background

Since the beginning, humans used their fingers to eat and we still do. Utensils have been around in various forms for thousands of years. Depending on one’s skill with utensils, eating may or may not be less messy. Before napkins, fingers and mouths were wiped with the back of one’s hand, bread, clothing, table coverings, you name it—methods still in use today.

The word napkin is derived from nappe (French for cloth or tablecloth) combined with the suffix kin (meaning little) and is defined as a small piece of cloth or paper, usually square, used while eating for protecting the clothes and wiping the fingers or lips.

Napkin History Highlights

  • Ancient Romans used cloths to wipe their fingers and mouth while dining.
  • During the middle ages, a cloth was hung from the edge of the table and served as a communal napkin.
  • Napkin with Napkin RingBy the 16th century, napkins had been separated from the table for individual use.
  • During the 19th century, napkin rings were created to help household members identify their napkins for reuse between washings.
  • Scott Paper introduced the paper napkin in the 1930s.

Paper Napkins

  • Material Source: trees, recycled paper (pre-consumer and post-consumer)
  • Number of Uses per Napkin: typically single-use
  • Cleaning: NA
  • Disposal: landfill, may be compostable

Cloth Napkins

  • Material Source: natural fiber crops (cotton, flax, hemp), fossil fuels (polyester)
  • Number of Uses per Napkin: varies depending on material, quality, number of washes (could last for 1 year or 25 or more years)
  • Cleaning: household napkins are typically used more than once and are thrown in with other laundry loads
  • Disposal: down cycle for use as a rag, landfill, may be compostable

Environmental Impact

All napkins use resources and energy, and produce pollutants and waste, during production, transportation, use, and disposal. There is wide variation in napkin material, size, and weight, which impacts how much water and energy are used during the life cycle of a particular napkin.

As an example, if 50% of the U.S. population used 3 paper napkins a day that would total 450,000,000 napkins for 1 day.

Blue Water Drop0.07 gallons of water is required to produce a 0.08-ounce paper napkin (not including water to grow the tree).  It would take 31,500,000 gallons of water to make the 450,000,000 paper napkins used in just one day.

This is equivalent to 477 Olympic size swimming pools or daily water use for 315,000 to 393,750 people (according to the U.S. Geological Survey, on average each person uses 80 to100 gallons of water per day).

For another example, let’s look at a cloth napkin. 119 gallons of water is required to produce a 1.4-ounce cotton napkin, plus water for washing over the life of the napkin.

Note: the above calculations are based on the weight of napkins from my household.

Paper vs. Cloth Napkins

A few months ago, it occurred to me most meals do not require a “standard” full-size double fold paper napkin (about 1 sq. ft). So I started cutting our supply of napkins in half while watching TV (a week supply takes just a few minutes). On the one hand it seems silly, even to me, but on the other hand, I instantly cut our napkin consumption by 50% which saves resources and money.

Recently we decided to try other napkin options. We broke out our collection of reusable napkins which consist of beige and holiday colors. We purchased natural colored (brown) paper napkins made with 100% recycled paper. They are the “standard” size so I’m still going to cut them in half.

What is your napkin policy? Even something simple like a napkin does have an environmental impact. Consider the following when choosing paper or cloth napkins:

  • Holiday Theme Paper NapkinsAvoid napkins that are more decorative than functional (for instance, some napkins look pretty but are made out of stiff material that does not actually clean your fingers).
  • Better yet, select napkins made from recycled paper not whitened with chlorine bleach.
  • Compost after use.
  • Flax NapkinsMake sure material is suitable for use as a napkin and is soil resistant.
  • Cotton is a water and pesticide intensive crop. Consider organic cotton or an alternate material.
  • Save energy by washing in cold water and give yourself extra credit for line drying.
No Napkin
  • If you don’t need a napkin, then don’t use one.
  • Some people might not like the following option. Wiping one’s mouth and hands on one’s sleeve or pants does actually work, and requires no additional water or energy during washing or drying.

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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information and to spark conversation. Her mission is to live more lightly on Earth and to persuade everyone else to do the same.

10 thoughts on “Paper vs. Cloth Table Napkins — Which are Greener?”

  1. We have had a controversy at our church on this topic. The paper napkins
    in colors are about the only way we can decorate the area except for
    occasional flowers. They are made of recyclable paper or from paper
    made from what we call in the Northwest..”fast trees” so they are
    easily replenished and they are great for composts which we do.
    The cloth ones…NOT organic cotton by the way….require water and electricity plus their laundry puts chemicals into our waste water systems. Since we serve to large groups and to the public, we convinced the ”cloth” group to at least use a sanitizer since just about all body fluids could end up on one.
    There is, of course, no mention of the ”labor” involved in the laundy, drying
    and folding. Taking care of our Earth is very important to me but I
    fear that some go over the top and can create negativity about the efforts.

    1. You bring up a good point about public gatherings. Using paper napkins from recycled paper and then composting them seems a good solution. To me, it’s heartening to hear people at your church actually discussed paper versus cloth napkins and thought it through! While debate may not seem pleasant at the time, it’s a way to learn and change. Thanks for sharing.

      1. Hi, Linda, A few more thoughts on the paper vs. cloth napkin article: 1. Hardly anyone wants to set a formal table anymore, so old linen napkins can be bought on eBay, etc, for next to nothing. They are beautiful, have a wonderful hand [texture], and last forever. 2. With modern machines and detergents they can be washed in cold water, hung on your drying rack, then steam ironed. They do not need to be washed separately. With these parameters I would think cloth is. MUCH greener. 3. Just a last aesthetic point: it is also fairly easy to find them MONOGRAMMED: and how wonderful is that? I input a “saved search” on eBay : Linen napkins P monogram, and now have several sets with different styles and sizes of monograms. I even found a set with by brother and sister in laws marital monogram jPs: they were thrilled with the gift.

        1. Right! I have a collection of vintage cloth, mostly linen and cotton, napkins that are not only attractive, but practically indestructible.

  2. When you screw up paper it stays screwed up but some paper napkins bounce back. I wondered if they are all paper or if plastic was in them too.

    1. Hmm…interesting. I do not know if some paper napkins contain plastic but your description makes it sound likely. Our household mostly uses cloth napkins that I toss in with other loads of laundry. We do keep paper napkins made from 100% recycled paper on hand for cloth napkin averse visitors and the occasional extremely messy meal.

  3. You don’t mention sanitation. Paper napkins can be composted (or thrown away), there is no exposure to other people’s germs. I don’t know if washing cloth napkins in cold water and line drying kills enough germs to make them safe to re-use, though ironing with steam would help to sanitize them.

    1. Sanitation concerns have certainly increased during the COV-19 pandemic. Perhaps you would feel safer washing your cloth napkins in hot water. The environmental issue with paper napkins is their entire life cycle not just what you do with them after you use them.

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